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Learning Architectures I: Introduction

Andrew Joly shares his views on the concept of learning architectures and its importance when designing and implementing effective learning in a 70/20/10 world.

We are at a moment in the evolving practice of learning where there is huge opportunity. Opportunity but also, for many in our business, uncertainty and fear. The cause of this state of affairs is a new way of thinking about learning strategies in the 70/20/10 world that has been accompanied by the rise of interest in informal learning.

Firstly, let me outline the opportunity. The 70/20/10 view has been with us since the early eighties, but it is only now, with the emergence of Web 2.0 technology tools, new paradigms of knowledge management and the self-directed learner, that we have begun seriously to harness the power of the ‘informal’ ways that people learn. Learning is changing as a result. No longer do we need to interrupt people’s working lives with training days that take them away from their place of work before we can even begin giving them the knowledge and skills they need to do their jobs. Learning can, at last, be much more closely integrated with workflow. Learners can have more autonomy in when and how they learn. The whole thing can work not just more efficiently, but potentially far more effectively than ever before.

But fear also arises from the word ‘informal’. It sounds and feels like a loss of control. We have grown up with a highly directive model of training, and feel instinctively that to lessen our degree of control over the learning experience may open ourselves up to too great a risk of failure.

As a result, that first step into the world of ‘Informal’ can feel like stepping off a cliff.

Stepping off the cliff

The problem with the traditional model of training is that it tends to place great emphasis on formal training events, while giving little thought to what happens between those events. In the 70/20/10 world, what happens between one event and another is at least as important, if not more important, than what takes place during the formal interventions that L&D mediate directly.

Three problems arise from this. In the first place, many of the principles of instructional design elaborated and codified by traditional instructional theorists do not offer appropriate guidance. They can tell us how to design instructional events, but they don’t tell us how to make them work together with more informal interventions, within a learner journey where much of what happens is self-directed by the learner.

The second problem is the pure complexity of what has to be managed, when you admit into your frame of reference multi-channel and multimedia delivery of every type of learning, knowledge and communications, and indeed every type of behavioural change that business requires us to address. The maze you step into can seem very daunting – especially without familiar handrails to guide you.

Thirdly, this being a relatively new area of thinking, it often feels like there are very little in the way of best practice examples – proven, tested or otherwise – for us to draw on as we attempt to make sense of these new opportunities.

Despite these difficulties, there is a widespread recognition in the marketplace that using learning technologies is absolutely essential in order to meet the needs of today’s globalised organisations, and that simply replacing one exclusively top-down model of training with an online equivalent is not necessarily the way to get the best results. An effective learning programme needs to cover all the bases; with an optimal design of the combination of people, processes, content and technology.

Clearly, in this world, it is no longer useful to think purely at the level of the course. The Lingua Franca of learning nowadays is the blend – but even this level of granularity is too fine: blended learning as currently practiced tends too often to be about sequencing instructional events (such as workshops, online e-learning modules and offline activities) that in themselves have a rigid internal structure – and often without much sense of what happens in between. Even thinking at the level of the programme is not going to guarantee success, if we remain in a firmly directive mindset. LEO Learning’s advice, based on empirical evidence gathered from working in partnership with clients, is that we need to change how we think about providing learning. Increasingly, people are talking about learning design in terms of architectures, and we feel this is a very useful way to look at it.

What is a learning architecture?

In his recently published book The New Learning Architect, Clive Shepherd explores the metaphor of Learning Designer as Architect, as a way of describing how the role of L&D professionals is changing. An architect responds to a particular need and set of circumstances: what type of building is needed; who comes to it and what are the activities that take place there; what are the physical constraints on building? Meet the learning architect: ‘Like the architect who designs buildings, the learning architect will be responding to a specific brief: what is the nature of the learning requirement … What jobs are carried out on the target area … Under what constraints must this learning take place …’

The important conceptual shift that comes with thinking in this way is from visualising a learning programme as a path that you lay down for learners to follow to visioning it as a structure you build which learners and their learning programmes then inhabit. There are still goals and pre-defined paths to follow, just as visitors to a corporate headquarters will have a carefully considered route to follow to get from reception to the boardroom. Just as an architect designing a building – or, to shift the example into the virtual realm, an information architect designing a website – thinks about user journeys and user experience, a learning architect will think in terms of learner journeys and the learner’s experience along the way. And, just as buildings and rooms need to be flexible, so should learning architectures allow creative flexibility for real people to use in different ways.

Yes, there is a notional loss of control involved in this shift, but only in the sense that a tour guide showing visitors around the great pyramids has more direct control over the group than the original architect of that edifice. The tour guide can give you information, but it is the (probably in this case nameless) architect who shaped the experience, who inspired a sense of awe and wonder; who gives the journey its deep emotional charge and provides a truly memorable experience. And as we know, emotion (although it might make us uncomfortable in a business context to discuss it) is essential for learning to take place.

The real point is that the loss of immediate control in embracing informal learning within the context of a learning architecture – in moving your role from tour guide to architect – brings an immense power possibility. Because the potential contained in the integration of learning, and more importantly the application of learning, into everyday life is massive.

Differences and similarities

So what does it look like, this new view of learning? Where can we see a learning architecture? The simplest way is to just to show one (see sidebar). It is really only by describing and showing the structure of a particular programme that you can see what is meant – because as Clive Shepherd points out in his book: ‘each organisation is different’. A learning architect has to meet, ‘the particular learning requirement for the particular target audience, and in consideration of the practical constraints and opportunities’.

The notion of learning strategists as architects is not new, nor the idea of learning architectures. Bersin & Associates showed a series of fascinating and varied architectural case studies back in 2008. But the interesting thing for us is not how different architectures are, but how similar, and indeed how our ever-growing experience in architectural approaches – what works for different audiences, what’s needed and how to work within different engineering constraints – can help short-cut the strategic thinking for new clients or projects.

Just as not all houses are completely different – my Victorian house is in many structural respects identical to thousands up and down the UK – so not all learning architectures are completely dissimilar – and no architects start a job with a completely blank sheet of paper. They bring models and design principles to the table, based on their knowledge and experience.

A learning architecture is a strategic design for learning to meet a particular business goal in a particular situation. While the specificity of the architecture that results, in its response to that individual goal and situation, is important, it is unlikely to be completely unique. If you’re looking at induction for management consultants within the professional services sector, for instance – or dealer training within Automotive – LEO Learning could point you towards an architecture that we know works. You might have to tweak a few variables, based on the IT infrastructure constraints, learner profile, timescale and so on, to do with your particular situation, but you would have an architecture to compare with and benchmark to work with – a place to start. Your journey might not feel completely like jumping off a cliff.

Architecture for topic stream learning in a Professional Services environment

Each organisation and audience requires a specific approach relating to technical, cultural and social parameters as well as specific learning needs. Yet many of the core requirements are the same. In this case, topic stream learning for consultants within the professional services sector brings ‘traditional’ e-learning, events, media, social networking and collaboration tools into learning journeys created from both the informal and formal components available. Key parts of the learning programmes feed out of the topic streams into continued professional development programmes as an extension to the core learning design.

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